The Hong Kong protests are forcing companies to choose between supporting their employees’ desire to speak out on civil rights and freedoms versus their allegiance to Beijing. The Hong Kong protests began in June 2019 as a targeted demonstration against a controversial extradition bill that could send Hong Kong residents to mainland China to be tried in court, but they’ve since transformed into what feels like a battle for the future of Hong Kong.
- How can corporations operating in Hong Kong balance demands from Hong Kong and China?
- If you were CEO of a Hong Kong business, how would you respond to employees’ requests for time off to protest?
- If China were to use force to quell the protests, what would be the impact on Hong Kong as a financial capital? How can China respond in a non-violent way to find a reasonable path forward with the protestors?
- Pressure from China cost the CEO of Hong Kong flagship Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. his job after some employees took part in marches and Beijing threatened to cut off access to its airspace.
- Alibaba Group Holding Inc. pulled a planned listing of shares in Hong Kong, reasoning that market and political conditions weren’t right for a deal that would be a boon for the city’s stock market.
- Hong Kong’s stock market has lost nearly $300 billion in market value since the end of June. The cumulative damage to spending and investment is threatening to tip the city’s $363 billion economy—roughly the size of Israel’s—into recession.
As with the 1989 Tiananmen protests, these in Hong Kong are partly about democracy but also about economic frustrations. The average Hong Konger has housing space of only 160 square feet, just slightly bigger than the average New York City parking space.
The city’s most powerful vested interests are nervous after 11 weeks of street protests that have paralyzed the city, prompting its biggest political crisis since the handover to China in 1997 and threatening to push it into recession.
Hong Kong’s richest man, billionaire Li Ka-shing, pleaded for an end to the unrest “in the name of love.” Hong Kong’s big banks took out full-page adverts in local newspapers pleading with protesters to stop the rallies and marches.
Standard Chartered bank said it supported the city’s government to uphold social order and “guard the status of Hong Kong as an international financial center.” HSBC condemned “violence of any kind” and called for talks to resolve the dispute. Companies including InterContinental Hotels Group PLC have told employees to take leave as business dried up.
Beijing says that Hong Kong is an internal matter and warns the rest of the world to mind its own business. As in 1989, these protests snowballed because of government mishandling and arrogance. China’s hard-line has also deeply antagonized Hong Kongers.
But Hong Kong – “Asia’s world city” – is everyone’s business. Violent repression of Hong Kong’s protesters will impact the entire world with consequences that no one can predict.
The powerful elite sitting in Beijing, which sees the protests as a direct challenge to its authority, seem to be rethinking its relations with its increasingly troublesome special administrative region. The Chinese troops massed across the border in Shenzhen suggest a day of reckoning awaits.